October 9, 2009 at Highbury Garage, London, UK
by Alissa Ordabai
Continuing to road-test their new album Pine / Cross Dover released earlier this year, the godfathers of desert rock Masters of Reality have played this current tour’s London show on October 9 at the Highbury Garage. The 700-capacity venue was full on the night with the crowd giving as enthusiastic a response as a UK crowd can ever give on a murky English autumn night.
Despite the 5-year break which separates the new record from MOR’s previous release, the 2004’s Give Us Barabbas, the show has proven that this band’s approach to making music hasn’t changed. The new album presents the same trademark mix of blues, indie rock, ’80s pop, ’60s surf guitars, minimalist synth-driven prog-rock, trippy psychedelic and the same penchant for stoner blues riffs repeated ad infinitum. Plus Chris Goss’ voice hasn’t changed one bit. To this day it sounds remarkably fresh and young, which in a live setting provides for an extraordinary contrast between Goss’s craggy stance of a weathered bluesman and the bright, unsullied, at times deceptively amiable sound of his voice.
MOR’s message remains the same too – sombre and with a tendency to obsess over simple harmonic ideas, it still unifies the band’s disparate influences into one distinct whole through sheer determination and single-mindedness of their focus – a remarkable achievement for a band whose inspiration sources have always been more diverse than the crowd that came out to see them on the night.
The Garage on the night was heaving with punters ranging from pony-tailed beer-gut biker types to svelte indie kids of both genders, all giving an equally enthusiastic reception both to the new material and the old hits which included “Lover’s Sky,” “100 Years,” “Deep in the Hole,” “Third Man on the Moon,” “She Got Me” and the epic road-trip that is “V.H.V”.
It takes a special kind of musician to hold the crowd’s attention for long with an expansive blues jam workout, but Gross is exactly that kind of performer – someone who is able to create his own environment without putting on airs and to take his listeners on a journey which is at once phantasmic but at the same time utterly compelling.
“V.H.V” is, of course, one of those songs and on the night this multi-layered, infectious slowburner was performed perfectly. Its familiar propulsive blues groove – at once ominous and hypnotic, became the perfect platform for Goss to tap into the well of Morrison-esque shamanism – weary, dark and frayed, before building the piece up to a crescendo and going into a climatic guitar solo. And this was a perfect opportunity for him to show what he is capable of as an instrumentalist and what lies at the heart of his musicianship.
Goss’s guitar parts are arguably the best and the most unique feature of him as an artist, at privileged moments providing the direct immediate connection to his personal musical vision like nothing else does. This time it was all about muscular, unvarnished, at times deliberately grisly and sludgy and at times sublime guitar craft. Almost a revelatory moment, it made you realise that beyond all of MOR’s received musical forms and Goss’s gift for to turning them into a personal form of expression, it is still his guitar solos where he is at his most authentic self and where he is most compelling.
Despite the band’s conflicting urges which take them from guitar pop to blues and from there to moody avant-garde electronica, no matter how wild or how contradictory things get, they always manage to find focus amid the maelstrom while at the same time entertaining their audience. A lot of it is down to the band’s laconic, uncluttered powerhouse of a rhythm section propelled by John Leamy’s hard-hitting, full-bodied drumming. This is what makes those extrapolations possible, and what floats Goss confidence, which becomes evident live.
To sum up, if anyone is left wondering if after 23 years we should still care about Masters of Reality or if this band is still relevant, the answer is a resounding yes. For as long as people are not afraid of surrendering to music which is capable of taking them to weird, unexpected and mystical places, there will be a place for bands like Masters of Reality. And as long as they carry on making music authentically and sincerely, this is all they are going to need to remain in demand.